Why are we doing this? Is this question meant to be horrifying? Has something gone terribly wrong? A connection not made? There are doubts being raised just as the difficulty begins to incline. Or is it a question we should encourage our students to ask all the time? To keep us accountable and make sure what we’re doing is relevant? Skepticism is healthy. Can “trust me” be a valid response? Have I not been explicit or have I overestimated their knowledge gap?
This week was step 1. In class I introduced the topic of “Big Ideas” which is a method of curriculum design where teachers begin by identifying an important, universal or at least essential concept at the heart of a discipline, topic, or even inquiry. I was introduced to the method in my undergraduate art education courses. Our textbooks, Sydney Walker’s Teaching Meaning in Art Making and subsequent Rethinking Curriculum in Art with Marilyn Stewart, were like art education bibles for me because of their marrying of artistic practice with curriculum design. It was an idea I certainly wrestled with at times, and continue to do so. But it also deeply resonated with me as both an artist and a teacher. For me, it’s basically like a theme. What is a theme or “Big Idea” in art? Artists explore identity. Artists explore culture. Artists explore love. Artists explore power. Family. Diversity. Heroes. A "Big Idea" is something that affects humans all over the world and are at the core of any way of knowing it seems. Of course, artists are inspired by all sorts of things and for all sorts of reasons. No artists work can be reduced to a single idea. However, by tracing a single strand of an idea through an artist’s enables one with a deeper understanding of that artist’s work and how it relates to the world at large and connects to the work of other artist who are exploring similar problems. Rather than reductive, Big Ideas should be seen as connective, offering viewers a point of entry. And Big Ideas can help any age group relate to the work of artists - attempting to answer the simple question: “Why did they do that?”
In preparation for this new semester, I was able to identify and collect Big Idea lists and resources for art and some of the most common disciplines like social studies, science, math, and literature, which I provide students online. I think Big Ideas relate naturally with Backwards Design and that is usually how I begin planning a course. I start at the end. What kind of person do I want to leave my classroom? What do I want them to know and be able to do? What do I hope they will notice about the world? How will they see it differently? What dispositions will they internalize? And then I go backwards from there. I’ve tended to favor a view of education that is long term. Built to last. What kind of person will you be on your deathbed? Let’s reverse engineer that. What do we need to do to get there? All that is step 2. That’s the lesson plan - the HOW. We’ll get there soon, but all I want right now is the WHY.
It’s a new class, a new semester, a new group, and a newish me. The course title is definitely the same. For those of you just joining us, it is Art Curriculum & Concepts for Teachers. It’s a course for students intending to become teachers and is one of their choices for studying art-integration. The “Why” for me is creativity. I want my students to demonstrate artistic thinking and to grow creatively - to at least not be afraid of it or avoid it. And to do that, they must experience creativity for themselves.
So far this semester has been tremendous, but tremendously busy before it even started! Maybe you can relate? But I’ve stripped down the course to fewer more essential elements - forcing myself to kill a few darlings along the way. Probably a few more could use elimination, but I’m a greedy teacher always thinking we can do more than we really can. And the pacing is dramatically more reasonable!
My major goal for this new class was to include more art experiences and we have definitely done that! Each class so far has been at least half artmaking! Art takes time. Experiences take time. So aside from more art, my biggest practical goal was to not fall behind the calendar on the first day of class again. And we did it! For TWO whole classes this time! It’s true. By the third day, it was clear there wouldn’t be time to cover all the readings and viewings in class. But maybe that’s not a bad thing? Maybe their responses with me is enough? I have a feeling that this course is likely to be the ONLY course of training in VISUAL art-integration that these teachers may ever have. Perhaps one day they’ll have arts-integration as a focus of some PD or an in-service - the lucky ones. But some unlucky ones may never have another opportunity to learn from a visual artist and about what it means to make art, be creative, and see the world through an artistic lens. So I squeeze in some things in and let them make the connections on their own.
We have class for one hour and fifty minutes once a week and the first three classes have featured clay-on-the-first-day, followed by Sumi Ink Club, then collaging with the Big Idea of Identity. This week’s class, the 4th one, was no different. This week students were invited to a Task Party inspired by artist Oliver Herring and they it was fantastic! My students have responded beautifully and I’ve been very happy to see them gain confidence in their creative abilities. Each art experience was slightly different but shared the qualities of open-endedness, socializing, and thinking through materials and media. One of my main artistic goals is for students to see how art can bring people together and help them connect with each other. We’re building community.
The first day, the goal for the second half of class was reviewing the syllabus and trying to get the students to buy into the going gradeless approach, which is critical. The next day, I introduced our main project, creating and presenting an art-integrated lesson. We reviewed the guidelines and the provided template. The third day, we discussed creativity during the second half of class. I’m seeing in their reflections how much they are getting out of our creative experiences and some are already noting changes in their thinking and creative growth. They’re coming up with great takeaways and we’re working on thinking of ways they can use the material in their futures. It’s been much smoother than last semester so far!
This week we continued our discussion on creativity and dived into Big Ideas. And we hit our first bump in the road. When I introduced the lesson plan and the idea of art-integration, I challenged them to imagine their lesson as the Colossus of Rhodes with one foot firmly planted in the subject they’re most interested in and another foot planted in art. I reminded them of the analogy and told them that their assignment this week would simply be to choose a Big Idea from the art world and the non-art world using the lists provided. We review that they explored the Big Idea Identity as they worked on their collages the previous week. We go into the Lesson Plan Resources folder to pull out examples and practice combining them. I choose one from science - that all matter in the Universe is composed of tiny particles - that things are composed of smaller parts - and ask the class to see if they can connect it to a Big Idea from art from a list I display. They mention community and family.
Then we move to literature and we mention how we can look at a painting and then read a story related.
"But a children’s book will have pictures…"
"Well, not if you’re teaching high school," I mention. What I wish I had said, and will say next time, is how students of course can create their own illustrations for books.
But the student seems lost. Not seeing how Big Ideas connect or why they’re relevant. Is their conception of learning always start with a bit of content rather than a concept as so many do? Pick a thing and teach it. Are they grasping for standards to tell them the “what” to teach before they’ve ever considered the “why?”
"Do you want us to teach an art lesson like what we’ve been doing in class?"
"No, of course not! I don’t want you to be art teachers, unless you want to become art teachers - in which case you’re welcome to join the Art Education program. But I want you to teach a lesson that combines art with a subject you love."
"Do you have an example of a finished lesson plan?"
They’re desperate for the how. Maybe they feel like I’ve given them a tuna and a light bulb and asked them to put them together.
"No. I don’t want you to see the answers yet. And more importantly, we didn’t start this way last time. I’m not asking you to know what you’re going to teach or what it needs to look like in the template. I’m just asking you to pick two Big Ideas that interest you. You don’t have to know how you might combine them. Just as long as long as YOU can see a connection."
I know the impulse is to go online to find a ready-made lesson plan. But in those lessons, all the choices have already been made for you. In the textbook, all the choices have already been made for you. But I want YOU to make the choices - to make the connections for yourselves. It’s uncomfortable to not know the answer. To not know the destination - but that is part of being creative. To be uncertain and able to move forward. To step into discomfort. To make something, when it is easier to copy or just give up.
There was some tension this class. Confusion. We’ve crossed into creative territory. And almost immediately, the “I don’t want to mess up” sentiment appears. It is a common anxiety among my students based on their responses. Am I battling against perfectionism? I’m definitely shaking my fist at the gilded temple of perfectionism and its golden calf ideal of the 100%. I know my writing is.
Afterwards I felt deflated. I wasn’t expecting the struggle to begin right off the bat with Big Ideas. Then I remember back to the first art education class I taught. I wanted my art education undergrads to use Big Ideas for planning their lessons just like I’d learned to do. I remember introducing the concept in a way that I thought was clear and straightforward, telling them they would be designing their lessons using Big Ideas. And then the tears.
I was completely caught off guard. I had never imagined that this would cause tears. But change can be hard. The students had never been asked to do something like this before and a couple that were further along in the program were experiencing a tiny breakdown about learning a new approach. This would not do - but we had to work through their emotions first. I had to calm their elephants before their riders could listen. After a lot of talking, reassurance and practice, they got it.
But I saw the necessity for a better approach. I had seen where the bar was before I had arrived. When I was reviewing the Portfolios that had been submitted by prior student teachers - I was floored. I found binders stuffed with lessons printed directly from the internet. Dear god - they didn’t know how to plan a lesson themselves! This is one reason why I didn’t resent the implementation of EdTPA portfolios across the country like so many of my colleagues. They saw a loss of autonomy whereas I saw a raising of standards. Effective programs were already asking their students to create lessons and record videos of themselves and assess those plans and reflect upon their performance in the classroom. But not all teacher prep programs were requiring their students to perform these basic teaching tasks. What I did resent was how the cost was passed onto the students and how coordinators had no say in the process.
The concept of Big Ideas is new to them. I had asked for a head count of anyone that had been used Big Ideas for curriculum design in the past. None had. So this is completely new for them. Maybe I haven’t framed it right yet? How much of the puzzle do I put together for them? This is a continual struggle for me. Is see the connections - when will they? What if they don’t?
Next time I will add this:
Why have we been engaging in these artistic experiences if we’re not to teach like that? Because many of my students have few if any experiences being creative in school to draw upon in your planning. I want you all to experience creative conditions. You must FEEL creativity. I can't just tell you what it is like. You can't just read about it. You will understand the highs and lows of the creative process because you have lived them. This is how you will know if your students are being creative and if you are being creative in your planning - because you know what creativity feels like. What I want most from you is to help your students show and not just tell. I want you to help them make knowledge and not just regurgitate. To build with their hands and look with their eyes while you move their hearts and engage their minds."
Maybe it will just take time. There’s that uncertainty again - that essential ingredient of the creative process. When we meet next, we will take some of the Big Ideas folks have selected and see if we can’t play with combing a few of them in different ways before they head to their grade level groups to brainstorm. Show them how a Big Idea can serve as a starting point for Backwards Design. I’m hoping that through this experience, they’ll begin to see planning and curriculum design as a creative process.
So do I show them an example when I want them to surpass it? When it was created using a different process and timeframe? I think I may withhold examples until after I receive the first draft. I think this will ultimately allow them to show more growth by allowing them to start with only what they know on their own. If they then have an example to scaffold them before the second draft, I believe they will feel as though they’re making even more significant progress. They have a template. They have guidelines. They have resources. They have the SUCCESs model. They have the Thinking Like An Artist dispositions. They have all the tools they need - it’s time to start putting them together.
While my students last semester put a tremendous amount of work into their lessons and grew tremendously, I want lessons that are more creative and blend together art and other subjects even more deeply. Last time, I received some problematic lesson plans that made me want to rethink how we had approached the planning process. And I have. Now I have to trust in the process I’ve established and see it through. And I’m optimistic this group will step up.
So we’ve crossed the creative threshold. The struggle is becoming real. But I believe they will engage and persist. We’ll see what they do with it. As Chip and Dan Heath say, we’re at the “Huh.” Will the “Aha!” be far behind?
I'll mostly be blogging about my experience teaching pre-service teachers about creativity and artmaking. I teach a class called Art Curriculum & Concepts for Teachers where future classroom teachers learn about visual art-integration. Among other things, I'm attempting to "Go Gradeless" while also experimenting with a hybrid in-person / online curriculum.